Monday 28 February 2011

The Messe in Essen

It was yet another rainy weekend in Düsseldorf so rather than sit at home and mope about yet another lost cycling day I took the train to Essen, 30 minutes away, to visit the leisure trade show at the Messe (as the exhibition centres are called here). I just followed the crowd on the subway leaving the main station and got there quite easily. As usual, it was raining.

Just as I entered the building, I saw a cyclist in an old-style Continental wool jersey, sitting astride a high-wheeler. He rolled off into the parking area for a few circuits and when he came back I took some photos. He was impressed with my high-wheeler sweatshirt and we chatted for a bit about the bike, which was not an antique but was a reproduction. He told me to look out for the bike shop in Hall 6 where some other old bikes were on display. I saw these subsequently: a pair of Opels, one, unrestored, from 1906 and the other, with balloon tires, dating to 1934 and looking brand new.

The show was called the “Messe für Fahrrad, Freizeit & Zubehör,” or the “Show for Bicycles, Leisure and Accessories.” It was a somewhat peculiar mix as it was actually three shows in one. A large part of the show was dedicated to travel and camping, one part to cycling and a slightly smaller bit to fishing. I entered first into one section of the camping area but quickly moved on to the “travel” area, which featured a lot of stands representing different parts of Germany, often divided into entertaining subsections. “Oh, you must want to go to East Münsterland–we just represent West Central Münsterland!”

I was so excited by all the bicycle travel possibilities that I stopped a booth presenting the products of the Landhaus-Brauerei Borchert in Lünne, in Emsland, which is Lower Saxony and is bordered to the west by the Netherlands. The Brauerei offered its own Braun Bier, but I could not pass up the opportunity to try a little shot of Bier-Liköre, which is made with beer and honey, although it tasted more of honey, I think. I decided to keep walking but would return for some of their beer later. If you go to the brewery/beer garden you can participate in a "Bierathlon," which includes shooting a crossbow, kicking a soccer ball into a hole in a wall and doing something like horseshoe throwing. Two drinks are also included for your 10 Euro participation fee.

There were a lot of interesting stands, including those promoting spas (which are extremely popular in Germany and very nice after a bike ride). The emphasis appeared to be more on Northern Germany, although the South was represented by Franconia (the northern part of Bavaria) and the Allgäu, east of Lake Constance. I collected brochures that were specifically for cycling but also got general brochures about attractions in each area. I chatted with the Roman legionnaire at the Xanten stand, and a lady was very keen that I go to visit the gardens of Schloss Dyck, which is only a short distance from where I went riding on the indoor track a week ago. It was a good opportunity to get brochures about the Ruhr and Nordrhein-Westfalen, which has an excellent cycling map. There were a lot of stands devoted to Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on the Baltic and even a large area devoted to the exhibition’s 2011 “partner country,” Sri Lanka.

I did not go to all 650 stands but limited myself to the ones that seemed to value bike touring. Some of the gimmicks were great: there was a bicycle driven game that required you to knock the top hats off of the rotating puppets, and this attracted a big crowd. At the stand devoted to nudism in Germany, everyone was fully dressed, however. The brochures suggested that nudism (Freikorperkultur) is stuck a bit in the past as the camps pictured, with their little caravans and volleyball courts, looked a bit forlorn and down-market, particularly compared to the flashy “wellness” spas, where you could get equally naked in the sauna if you wanted. Having suffered from what seems to be a near-continuous six months of rain and darkness here in Germany, I can understand why people would suddenly go crazy at the first sign of sun and throw away their inhibitions.

After collecting several hundred pounds of brochures, I staggered into Hall 6, which along with Halls 8 and 9, made up the cycling area. Nordrhein-Westfalen had a very good stand and I picked up some useful cycling information about the province there. But the majority of stands were selling bicycles or parts and were very popular. Brands, like Specialized or Trek, were represented by local retailers, while probably the largest stand of all belonged to Rose Versand, Germany’s largest mail-order bicycle retailer and publisher of a great door-stop of an annual catalogue. The current one is 960 pages and there is not much that you cannot get from Rose.

Their bicycles have quite a good reputation in Germany, close to the standards of arch-rival Canyon, which is in Koblenz. Rose is in the Nordrhein-Westfalen town of Bocholt and they have what must be one of the world’s flagship bike shops there, Bike Town, with 6,000 m² of floor space (around 65,000 square feet). Rose had an area for set aside for touring/commuting bikes, another for mountain bikes and yet another for electric bikes. The electric bike boom is clearly continuing as lots of people were trying out the bikes and there is even a magazine devoted to them. Several of the travel booths featured tours with electric bikes available.

The other test area was devoted to recumbents and people seemed to be having a great time zooming around in what looked like rolling armchairs but this enthusiasm has never translated into real world popularity. I was very taken with a red Leitra Velomobile, a fairing-covered all-weather recumbent that even had an iPod sound system in it. The latest model, the Avancee, was developed by an Austrian firm that took over the Danish design a few years ago. On Friday I was walking to an appointment at the Landtag when I was passed by a white Leitra, which was not only silent but surprisingly fast, as it zipped by on the bike path. The current model goes for 7,250 Euros, which is probably not such a bad deal considering how limited the demand must be and you are getting a lot more vehicle than you would with a racing bike at a comparable price. Racing bikes were notable, unlike at Eurobike in September, for their absence at this show. Rose had a few, as did Specialized and Trek, but the vast majority of bikes on display were meant for shopping or local travel.

By now my feet were aching and I stopped for a while to watch some trials riders do their thing. They ride bikes that have not saddles or seatposts, so they are standing while they do their stunts. And impressive they were as they jumped around on one wheel, hopping over a volunteer on the ground, who must have found it pretty terrifying.

I made my way back to the beer stand and had a nice Braun Bier and chatted with the young woman pouring beers. She was puzzled by my accent and thought my German was very good and did not sound like that of a typical English speaker. On the other hand she was diplomatic not to say it does not sound like a typical German speaker either...

Dragging my pile of brochures, I made my way back to the subway and then to the train station. The trains run quite often and I was back in Düsseldorf in mid-afternoon. It was a good day in spite of the sore feet and now I have enough travel brochures to plan cycling trips for my next three and a half years in Germany (provided that it stops raining).

Monday 21 February 2011

Book Review---Better than Christmas: A Connoisseur Builds His Bike

With the experience of nineteen bicycles in his baggage, Mr. Penn personalizes the globalized product.

Robert Penn’s “It’s All About the Bike” is a charming book that has been playfully titled in opposition to the huge best-seller by a certain Tour de France winning Texan, that rather more serious book being not about the bike but about surviving cancer. Mr. Penn is no young racer but a lifelong cycling enthusiast who has ridden around the world, in 40 countries and five continents and one day he decided that the six bikes he currently owns are not enough. None of them was truly his bicycle.

For most people who see a bicycle as, at best, utilitarian or, at worst, a children’s toy and/or traffic nuisance, what Mr. Penn has written about will be incomprehensible. To True Believers it seems logical: as we ride over the years, our view of what makes the Perfect Bicycle evolve with experience and eventually we need what Mr. Penn seeks: “...I require a bike you can’t buy on the Internet; a bike you can’t buy anywhere.”

His rationale?
Like many people, I’m frustrated at the round of buying stuff that is designed to be replaced quickly. I want to break the loop with this bike. I’m going to ride it for thirty years or more and I want to savour the process of acquiring it. I want the best bike I can afford, and I want to grow old with it.
I want craftsmanship, not technology; I want the bike to be man-made; I want a bike that has character, a bike that will never be last year’s model. I want a bike that shows my appreciation of the tradition, lore and beauty of bicycles.
He writes of how even in the times of mass manufacturers there were small artisan shops where craftsman with names like Singer, Masi, Cooper, Herse and Galmozzi made a personal statement with their skills. To their successors he would turn for his new frame and to match it he would travel the world to find components that were not necessarily the lightest or sexiest but the best made. This book is about his journey to shops and factories in the United States, Italy, Germany and Britain, and not only does he takes us along as his bike is assembled but he also takes us through the history of the diamond-framed safety bicycle and the technology that makes the glorious ride possible.

The tour begins at home in Britain. The framebuilder that Mr. Penn chooses is Brian Rourke and, unsurprisingly, the material of choice is steel and not just because “Fausto rode it.” Steel is very strong, long-lived, not prone to sudden failure and easily repairable and, in the case of the stainless steel Reynolds 953 tubing selected, aesthetically pleasing with straight, roundish forms. A timeless look, although the author goes with TIG welding rather than a lugged frame. He does point out that there has been a renaissance of lug-cutting in the United States, whereas it has mostly died out in Britain. The chapter not only covers his fitting for the Rourke frame, but touches on frame geometry, materials and the invention of the diamond frame, and ends with his being present at the welding.

The core of the bicycle thus established, he flies to Portland to pick up a Chris King headset from the rather secretive factory, and makes a side trip to visit frambuilder Sacha White at Vanilla Bicycles, as well as an excursion into more bicycle history. Then it is off to Milan for Cinelli handlebars and a very entertaining visit to Columbus, makers of steel tubing (once 20,000 sets at a time, more like 20 now) for a carbon fork. An even more secretive factory–no tours, just an interview-- is to be found in Vicenza, Italy, where storied Campagnolo provides the drivetrain components for the new bicycle. A very laid-back and philosphical gentleman in Marin County builds the wheels, using Swiss spokes and rims with British hubs, and Mr. Penn is given industrial gloves to pull his very own Continental tires out of the oven in Korbach, Germany. And the antithesis of the secrecy at Campagnolo is to be found back in Britain, where Mr. Penn selects a saddle at Brooks, where many employees appear to have been around since the advent of the diamond frame. The saddle chosen, a B17, has been in production since 1896.

We learn a great deal more than about Mr. Penn’s personal bike-in-progress (and some of the trips he describes are pretty epic): the history of mountain bikes; how bicycles stay upright; how time-trialling was run in Britain; Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches; and the history of wheels, from solid cart wheels to three-cross spoke patterns. Finally we come to the agonizing moment of truth: selecting the colour of the new bicycle. And then, everything assembled, the first ride...Portrait of the bike - © Chris Anderson (

In a world of mass production, there are few items where the customer so directs the final result. One thinks of Savile Row suits, or violins, or perhaps architecture. But the bicycle is an extension of ourselves, something we trust implicitly while going downhill at 80 km/h in the Alps, and a form that is so simple, so elegant that it takes real connoisseurship to detect the subtle differences. In the end, Mr. Penn probably paid less for his custom Rourke than for a top-end, ultra-light carbon pro racing wonderbike from Taiwan and has this book to recount its enviable history. My only quibble is that there is only one photo of the finished bicycle, the one on the cover.
The bicycle saves my life every day. If you’ve ever experienced a moment of awe or freedom on a bicycle; if you’ve ever taken flight from sadness to the rhythm of two spinning wheels, or felt the resurgence of hope pedalling to the top of a hill with the dew of effort on your forehead; if you’ve ever wondered, swooping bird-like downhill on a bicycle, if the world was standing still; if you have ever, just once, sat on a bicycle with a singing heart and felt like an ordinary human touching the gods, then we share something fundamental. We know it’s all about the bike.
It is a cliche of Christmas that a child runs downstairs to unwrap with the greatest delight his or her dream bicycle under the tree. How much better it would be if all dream bicycles could be like this one! Highly recommended.

“It’s All About the Bike: The Pursuit of Happiness on Two Wheels”
by Robert Penn
208 pp., Penguin Books, 2010
ISBN 978-1-846-14262-8
Currently available in the UK and Canada, this book will be released in the United States by Bloomsbury Press in April 2011.

Friday Night at the Track: Climbing the Wall

It has been a very busy few weeks, not helped by the fact that I was struck down on a business trip to Mainz by an evil virus that resulted in my losing 3 kilograms in about 12 minutes. Recovery was slow and my stomach muscles ached for days, putting a dent in all my biug plans. Although I only ate my first hot meal in a week on Thursday evening, I thought that I was well enough to go with my mechanic friend Richard to the indoor bicycle track in Kaarst-Büttgen. I felt bad because I had had to cancel out the week before due to the virus and was very disappointed.

When I got to Ricci-Sport on my city bike, Richard realized that I had no car, which posed a bit of a challenge. It seems that Kaarst-Büttgen must be one of the only places in Western Germany completely unreachable by public transit, so it was onto the bicycles and off we went through various suburbs of the city. It was only 17 kms but there were so many stoplights and bad traffic sections (not to mention pitch-dark sections of bikepath) it took us nearly 80 minutes to get there. I began to get the feeling we would arrive in Belgium momentarily.

The sports centre at Kaarst-Büttgen was quite an impressive facility. It was built in 1971. In addition to the cycling track, which is 250 m long (the same as Berlin’s Velodrome), there are facilities for gymnastics, inline-skating hockey, badminton, basketball, volleyball and handball. We quickly got to the locker room and changed before getting our bikes.

Crossing the track into the infield, I was surprised to see a lot of riders on this Friday evening. It was impressive to see them go around so quickly, following the small moped-like derny pacesetter. Richard got me to ride the bike around the track a few times at slow speed to get used to riding a bicycle with no brakes and no freewheel, meaning that the pedals never stop turning as long as the bicycle is in motion. I quickly got the hang of slowing down and stopping but as we practiced going around I discovered that the bicycle was quite unforgiving if I attempted to coast through the corners and jumped around a bit. It was actually startling and a bit nasty to feel the bike fight me, but in fact I was fighting the natural physics of the bike and the track. I mentally forced myself to relax my grip on the bars, as well as relax my shoulders.

Richard at speed on the Peugeot

Gradually I got used to the bike and increased my speed, practicing holding my position and trying to match Richard’s tempo. He has been riding a track bike since he was 12, so I was not under any illusions that I was going to impress anyone. As I began to get confidence and move up the track I found that I could slow down by putting a bit of reverse pressure on the pedals. However, it was soon clear that my recent virus-y condition would not allow me to go all that fast and I could feel my calf muscles getting sore from the unusual sensation of pedalling without a pause. It was quite dry in the hall and I had to stop twice for water but I did not get very cold. The fast riders all had arm and legwarmers, as well as jackets, even though the hall is heated. It is obvious that at the higher speeds they were going it would feel like cold wind and getting sweaty would be uncomfortable.

Richard showing what a bank of nearly 48 degrees looks like...

As I could feel my muscles slowly start to stiffen, I thought I would make a big effort to chase Richard up to the blue line, called the derny line. It was amazing to me how hard this was as riding on the track you do not perceive just how steep the banking really is at 47.8 degrees . It is like riding up a steep hill that appears quite flat. My legs and my lungs did not approve at all.
When I stopped for water, I chatted with a big rider who, unsurprisingly, noticed it was my first time on the track. He was very enthusiastic about cycling, owning 11 bikes and using an expensive SRM power meter on his track bike. He also said that he had lost 34 kilograms due to cycling and various physical problems he had had, such as symptoms of diabetes, were now under control. He was off to Mallorca the next day and was very excited.

Richard rode for a while longer, chasing and being chased by a really strong cyclist named Vladimir, who is an Elite Men’s road racer and, apparently, an eight-time world champion.

Getting changed in the locker room, another rider also chatted about his first time on the track. I think I provided a great deal of amusement for the experienced riders but everyone recognized that the first few times are awkward. I felt that I did pretty well, all things considered, but I really need to get in better shape. I can imagine that an hour on the track is amazing for conditioning. And there is a rhythm you develop after a while on the smooth surface, with the bike quietly humming away under you. Although I am not ready for a Six Days yet, I can imagine how track racing can become addictive.

Riding back home in the cool night, with a few raindrops mixed with snow in the air, I felt completely exhausted. I got back to the apartment at nearly midnight and collapsed into bed. Unfortunately, I woke up twice in the night with extreme leg cramps. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my first excursion on the track and look forward to trying it again, although I think I would prefer not to have to ride all the way out to Kaarst-Büttgen before the track ride itself.